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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Textbook costs rise with frequent updated editions

Published: January 27, 2012
Section: Features, Top Stories

In a time when economic hardship is becoming the norm, college students feel yet another aspect of university life draining more money out of their wallets: textbooks. While textbooks have always been expensive, students have seen a significant increase in the release of new editions.

As many students began to register for classes and look at the mandated book lists for social science and reading intensive classes, some bills approach $700 to $800.

“The rate at which publishers are putting out new editions has increased in recent years,” according to Professor Mike Coiner (ECON). When asked about the changes he has seen in textbooks familiar to him, Coiner responded that they were “minor,” and that students could easily get the same benefit from an older version of a book.

Many textbooks have begun a trend of releasing new editions every 18 months to two years, even if they do not contain a significant amount of new material. The purpose of these new editions is rather to maximize the profit of the publishing companies, since a publisher’s revenue from a textbook comes from the number of new copies sold. The physics textbook “College Physics with Mastering Physics, 9th Edition,” for example, was released in January 2011, with the “7th Edition” published in March 2009.

In some cases, however, the price of the newest edition of a textbook can go from being a nuisance to outrageous.

Jose Vargas ’15 told The Hoot that he was incredibly surprised by the price of his Physics 11A textbook, “University Physics, with Modern Physics, with Mastering Physics, 13th Edition,” compared to a digital copy of the previous edition he had secured from a friend. The difference amounted to more than $100, according to Vargas, and the cost of this book accounted for more than a third of [his] total textbook cost for the fall semester.

Many students have also found that the cost of the latest edition of a textbook will drop significantly even mere months after its publication, due to more vendors acquiring copies of the textbook and beginning to price their copies competitively with the publisher.

The used textbook market cuts into a publisher’s profits from a new edition. If a professor chooses to assign a previous edition of a textbook, students can easily find the book at a variety of retail shops or websites, usually for a significantly lower price than the latest edition.

Professor Robert Art (POL) said that publishers “hate the used textbook market,” due to the ever-increasing availability of cheaper textbooks for students.

Art also stated, “Barnes & Noble and other bookstores make a new book every two years in order to keep their sales up.” Even though his classes are assigned a significant number of books, he encourages his students to utilize all options available to them when buying their books, as many of them can be found used online for much lower prices than otherwise available.

The University Bookstore has also been seen as a source of fiscal frustration for students, due to the fact that the books it stocks, while assuredly the correct edition needed for a class, can be found cheaper virtually anywhere else, both used and new, online or at a retail store.

Even simply ordering from Barnes & Noble’s website can save up to $60 per book, including free shipping. If a student is willing to search for the book in a used book retail website or shop, it is likely that the textbook’s price could be cut in half.

When asked to comment on the prices of their textbooks, staff at the bookstore said they were not allowed to make statements without screening them through their regional headquarters first.

Most new editions of textbooks are not schemes by publishers to make as much of a profit as they can off of the college student market.

In fact, most new editions provide students with updated information about contemporary issues and events in their specific fields, such as the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy or the Arab Spring for textbooks in political science and anthropology respectively. Information such as this can be crucial in their education, and might otherwise have to be supplied through supplemental texts or sources.

In Coiner’s own field of economics, for example, he estimated that a new edition of a textbook should come out every three years in order to provide students with up-to-date information on recent developments, such as the 2008 recession.He also commented, however, that in textbooks where a significant amount of new knowledge has not been included, students can often get the same educational value from the textbook’s previous edition.